Measuring Sustainability in the Russian Arctic: An Interdisciplinary Study
4.4 Environmental and Arctic-Specific Dimension
4.4.1 Forest Area – Forest Management or Forest Control?
Forest area change is one of the main sustainable forestry indicators reflecting the state
of forest-covered area in a region. The indicator includes the information on the forest area,
timber resources by type, and annual timber increment and use.
Russian forests account for about 25% of the world timber resources, or 81 billion m3 of
timber, of which about 50 billion m3 are in mature stands. Annual timber increment in Russia is
estimated to be 0,87 billion m3, i.e. 1,3 m3 per ha of forest-covered area (Bobylev and
The Russian Arctic boreal forests, or taiga, cover around 12 million square kilometres,
mainly in European Northwest and Siberia, and constitute one of the largest biome in the world.
In the Northwest of Russia, forests cover around 70 per cent of the area. They are an important
source of life for many small indigenous peoples, and the economies of Murmansk and
Arkhangelsk Oblasts, Krasnoyarsk Krai and Sakha Republic rely on their forest resources. The
considerable part of north-western forests are the pristine forests with the high variety of
biodiversity that are critical for the environment both at national and European level: those
forests serve as a carbon sink and mitigate the global climate change impacts (Lopina et al,
The majority of Russian forests are administered by various federal authorities: about 95
per cent of all forests are administered by MNR, and the rest by Ministry of Agriculture and
Food, Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Defence. Timber industrial enterprises (leskhozy)
under the MNR manage all forest development activities.
Table 4.23 shows the dynamics of forest area change in the Russian Arctic and Russia
between 1993 and 2003.
Table 4.24. Forest area in the Russian Arctic and Russia, 1993 to 2003, thousand ha
Region 1993 1998 2003
Murmansk 4962 5253 5359
Arkhangelsk 19752 22277 22527
Yamal-Nenets AO 15709 16268 16262
Krasnoyarsk 85191 106271 106245
Sakha 134269 143977 143818
Russian Arctic 259883 294046 294221
Russia 763501 774251 776145
Source: Rosstat (2004)
As shown in the table above, between 1993 and 2003 total area covered with forests in
Russia appears to have remained the same. In the Russian Arctic, forest-covered area
increased slightly in the same period. As MNR and National Forest Service (2003) found, the
area covered by the main forest species in Russia has remained stable for the past decades.
However, as the report indicates, the area covered with some deciduous trees such as birch
wood and aspen wood has increased, especially in boreal forests.
Most authors writing on the forest issues in the Russian North (Serebryannyy and
Zamotayev, 1997; Kobyakov and Smirnov, 2001; Yaroshenko et al, 2001; Bobylev and
Makeyenko, 2002; Lopina et al, 2003) argue that it was the mechanisation of forest sector
occurred in the 1950-1980s that caused the most serious damage to the Arctic forest
ecosystems. The forest area disturbed by clear cutting and turned into a deforested desert is
reported to be much larger than the one damaged by metal smelters. Among the most
damaging Soviet forest management concepts that have prevailed until today is the myth that
pristine forests have to be thinned out in order to avoid their eventual decay and degradation.
The resulting systematic thinnings have led to the current state when the bulk of the forests
comprises trees of the same generation that, when reaching certain age, die almost
simultaneously. On the other hand, undisturbed pristine forests consist largely of trees of
different ages, and their degradation was only due to the anthropogenic impact. There are
almost no old-growth forests left in Europe, and currently they can be found just in some parts of
Russia (Kobyakov and Smirnov, 2001). More than half of all Russian Arctic forests grow on
cryosolic soils that condition their low productivity. Only about 55 per cent of those can be used
but their predominant part has been considerably depleted by the intensive exploitation during
the past century (MNR and National Forest Service, 2002).
With the biggest damage to Arctic forests caused by clear cuttings, the effect of industrial
pollution cannot be underestimated. One study (Serebryannyy and Zamotayev, 1997) considers
almost the whole Arkhangelsk Oblast an environmentally disturbed area where the pollution by
heavy metals, orhanochlorines, volatile phenols, and carbonyl compounds is extremely high,
and the regional forests suffer from acidic rains and harmful emissions from the oblast’s
industrial plants and smelters.
Bobylev and Makeyenko (2002) argue that, unlike other countries having limited forest
resources, Russia’s main problem is not the timber resources but forest management. It is also
unjustified, the authors say, to speak about the depletion of Russia’s forest resources at
national level. The existing forest resources are able to fully satisfy the country’s needs. The
mismatch between timber stock and volume of logging can be at regional level, but not at
national one. The authors point out that for the recent years the opposite problem has occurred:
the accumulation of mature stands due to the decreased main cuttings. The reduction in main
fellings and salvage cuttings may lead to the degradation of timber quality. However, as stated
above, this view does not take into consideration the fact that boreal pristine forests have
prevailed as a uniform ecosystem for thousands years until anthropogenic activities had
disturbed them seriously.
4.4.2 Actual Forest Harvest – Hurrahing in Harvest
Actual forest harvest, or main fellings, is the most important indicator of forest
management which according to many experts (e.g. Yaroshenko, 2001; Bobylev and
Makeyenko, 2002) is also the most statistically significant for the Russian forest sector which is
considerably involved in the shadow economy. This environmental and economic indicator
should be used in Russia as a core medium-term sustainable forestry indicator. In addition, the
authors suggest using allowable cut as a sustainable forestry indicator. However, the
disadvantages of this indicator have been already discussed in Section 3.5 above.
The Russian Arctic forests, and in particular those in Northwest of Russia, have the
highest intensity of commercial loggings in Russia. Selective fellings here started in the 18th
century by decree of Peter I for the building of the first Russian fleet as well as for tar and
charcoal production. The impact of these loggings was small. It was industrial loggings begun in
the 1930s and orientated towards timber exports to Europe that caused the most dramatic
damage to the boreal forest ecosystems. Large-scale clear cuttings with harvest areas of 1000
ha and larger under the motto “Cut and leave” became usual at that time. As a consequence,
the share of mature and overripe forests of high environmental and commercial value
decreased dramatically, whereas the area covered with subsidiary crops (e.g. aspen) increased,
and many pristine forests have turned into secondary forests. For instance, over the last 40
years, the conifer area in the northwestern regions of Karelia and Vologda Oblast has
diminished twofold (Lopina et al, 2003). This picture is typical for the whole Russia: for the last
15 years, conifer area has decreased by some 20 million ha, whereas secondary forests (birchtree
and aspen) increased by 13 million ha (MNR and National Forest Service, 2003).
As shown in Figure 4.16, main cuttings have decreased over the period of more than 10
years throughout the whole Russian Arctic.
Figure 4.16. Actual forest harvest in the Russian Arctic
thousand cubic metres
Source: author’s calculations based on MNR (2003)
Generally, actual forest harvest in the Russian Arctic dropped dramatically by 53 per
cent after 1992, yet after 1998 it slightly increased and then remained steady. From 1992 to
1998 actual harvest decreased dramatically. It began to increase from 1999, with a marked 43
per cent increase in 2000 versus 1998. In recent years, actual harvest remained steady.
Table 4.24 shows the actual forest harvest in the Russian Arctic regions from 1992 to
Table 4.25. Actual forest harvest in the Russian Arctic, 1992 to 2002, thousand m3
1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
Murmansk 690 532 198 192 183 121 98 160 139 163 130
Arkhangelsk 16303 12265 8997 9045 7937 7659 7541 9668 10046 9252 8882
Nenets 499 261 124 68 96 83 64 51 80 105 55
Krasnoyarsk 9239 12805 8421 9045 7602 7376 5484 7362 8907 8660 8409
Sakha 3792 2966 2253 1943 1705 1476 1134 1185 1261 1301 1195
Source: MNR (2003)
While the regional reduction in main cuttings is largely related to the depletion of fine
wood resources due to the unsustainable forest management in the 1930s-1980s, MNR and
National Forest Service (2003) attribute this to the continuing “structural and financial crisis in
the forest sector”. This state report provides a curious example of the official definition of
“efficient forest management”: currently, it says, forest resources in Russia are used “extremely
inefficiently”, i.e. harvest area decreased too much for the last decade. The report argues that
actual harvest in Russia is 0,18 m3 per ha, while in some EU countries such as Germany,
Austria or Finland actual harvest is 5 m3/ha. It does not provide more detailed information about
the cuttings in those countries and whether selection cuttings or clear fellings are meant. But
“the larger cutting area, the more efficient forest management” approach it provides reflects the
official view of forest management authorities in Russia. The authors of the report are also in
support of the above mentioned “thinning theory”, insisting that thinnings are actually unrealistic
for restoring normal age structure of forests, and targeted main cuttings are “a necessary and
effective means of improvement of forest age structure”.
In the light of one finding that “economic projections demonstrate that current round
wood exports from the Northwest are not able neither to support normal reforestation activities,
nor to ensure economic well-being of local populace” (Lopina et al, 2003), the continuing
practice of cutting whatever stands in the forest can be considered hardly sustainable or
“efficient”. Russia receives very low revenues from forest sector due to the insufficient domestic
wood processing and is leading the wood exports only in terms of cost and volume of the timber
exported. This means that Russian timber is the cheapest, with only 50 per cent of timber
processed within the country, compared to other timber producing countries processing 80 to
100 per cent of timber produced. The majority of workers within the Russian forest sector are
engaged in labour-intensive activities with extremely low rates, and falling, of productivity,
compared to similar activities in Finland and Sweden (Layton, 2000).
Furthermore, Grigoriev (2001) reports that there were numerous attempts by Russian
forest officials to prevent environmental NGOs from convincing foreign timber import companies
not to purchase the timber from Russian pristine forests, at least from Karelia and Murmansk.
Despite an aggressive media campaign against environmental NGOs, those managed to secure
the moratorium by the main European timber importers on the purchase and use of timber from
pristine forests in the Russian North.
As mentioned in Section 3.5 above, illegal loggings remain one of the most severe
problems for Russian forests, in particular for the northwestern and fareastern boreal forests. In
recent years, there has been reported an increase in illegal loggings resulted in a total of
941,400 m3 of timber illegally produced per year. This caused damage for the amount of 32
billion roubles (MNR and National Forest Service, 2003). Insufficient state control, lack of
environmental policies in the largest timber trading and forest logging companies, poor
legislation and low quality of life are the main reasons of increased illegal loggings in Russian
boreal forests (Lopina et al, 2003). The recent decade has also witnessed a dramatic increase
in sanitary cuttings that were actually turned into main cuttings. This happened mainly because
of a lack of budgetary support to leskhozy which were forced to sell timber produced by all
cuttings except for main cuttings and use this money to support themselves. As a result,
leskhozy have quickly become commercial forest logging companies, and sanitary cuttings
increased substantially. At the same time, the quality of timber produced by such operations
worsened accordingly and caused a considerable, and in many cases irreversible, damage to
the forests (Yaroshenko et al, 2001). Due the depletion of commercial forests, Category I
forests, particularly Arctic unique tundra-side forests, begin to be used increasingly for industrial
production (Kobyakov and Smirnov, 2001).
4.4.3 Forest Fires – Our Dearest Ashes
The other two important sustainable forestry indicators are forest fire area and reforested
area (see the next section). Fires are the cause of considerable damage to Russian forests. In
certain years, forest fire area in Russia even exceeded reforested area (Bobylev and
Figure 4.17 shows the dynamics of wildlife fires in the Russian Arctic from 1993 to 2002.
Figure 4.17. Area of forest fires in the Russian Arctic
1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
Source: author’s calculations based on MNR (2003)
As Figure 4.17 demonstrates, forest fire situation in the Russian Arctic worsened
dramatically in 1996, with 455,843 hectares of forests destroyed by fires compared to 131,433
hectares in 1993. After the situation has somewhat improved in 1999 and 2000, a sharp
aggravation of forest fire situation was observed in 2001 and 2002, with a 76 per cent increase
in burnt area compared to 1993. Table 4.25 demonstrates the area of forest fires in the Russian
Arctic compared to Russia between 1993 and 2002.
Table 4.26. Forest fire area in the Russian Arctic and Russia, 1993 to 2002, ha
1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
Murmansk 238 813 247 376 8367 836 1760 1225 5308 1978
Arkhangelsk 169 666 440 778 22244 1258 4534 25834 9970 5021
Yamal-Nenets - 566 1923 198 85 419 357 340 603 3884
Sakha 131026 74854 99814 454491 57146 92184 19572 8881 480527 537436
Russia 733614 518757 351470 1807054 669268 2277048 678356 1240441 868047 1273504
Source: Rosstat (2004)
Although forest fires are not as significant for the Northwest as for Siberia and Far East
and are in a sense needed for boreal forests (Lopina et al, 2003), their frequency and area have
increased substantially for the last decade. In 90 per cent of cases, forest fires have occurred
due to the anthropogenic factor. The fire situation was influenced mostly by a dramatic increase
in forest fires in Sakha. Gosudarstvenniy doklad Sakha (2002) reports about “emergency
situation with forest fires in the republic… with an 11 per cent increase in fire frequency”. The
causes of aggravated fire situation in Sakha are reported to be long hot summers and lightning
strikes. Majority of forest fires occur in Siberian forests, with the average area of a fire being 3,2
times higher than the one in other Russian forests. The main causes of fires in Siberian forests
are reported to be lightning strikes (34%), the rest being attributed to anthropogenic factor (MNR
and National Forest Service, 2003). However, the exact proportion of anthropogenic fires is
unknown, as the official statistics contain a “fires of undetermined cause” category. Moreover,
the classification of lightning fires is often rather dubious in that the analysis of the link between
lightning and forest fire is based on visual inspection, and the proportion of natural caused fires
is highly overestimated. While European Russia is characterised by high numbers of fires, the
share of burnt area here is much lower compared to Asian Russia. This is partly due to a
different capacity of fire suppression but also is more favourable natural conditions for fire to
spread in Asian Russia. Many regions (e.g. Sakha) are known for having a high hazard of
occurrence of wildfires. However, in a particular year massive development of fires is driven by
weather conditions (Karpachevskiy, 2004).
For Russia as a whole, the average proportion of anthropogenic fires is estimated to be
80 to 90 per cent. The majority of Russia’s anthropogenic fires are caused by agricultural burns;
the careless behaviour of children, local hunters, fishermen and berry/mushroom collectors; and
sparks from vehicles. Most of these fires take place in close proximity to settlements, roads,
agricultural fields and other forms of human infrastructure. The proportion of spontaneous fires
is higher only in areas with a pronounced continental climate, such as the area around the Irtysh
River and in Evenkia and Sakha, where it has been estimated that 33 to 67 per cent of fires are
spontaneous, depending on the season. However, the occurrence of fires is connected with
population density and land use even in these areas, and published statistical evidence
suggests that spontaneous fires are only dominant in unusual years and in remote regions
The same author also provides an analysis of official fire statistics and finds it
“incomplete, inaccurate and biased”. Massive forest fires in Russia do not attract the public
attention they deserve, due to the Russian Forestry Agency’s unwillingness to report the full
scale of the problem. The data on wildfires that are available to the public are very general, only
reporting on the area affected by fires, number of fires, direct economic losses and main regions
affected by fires. The official data are not supplied with relevant maps, nor with any sort of
comprehensive analysis of the situation or corrective action plans. Official figures for forest fires
seriously underestimate the forest area burnt for a number of reasons: remnants of the old
Soviet policy of secrecy and hiding the truth, the absence of a systematic approach and a lack
of reliable monitoring methods.
There are major discrepancies between the data on forest fires in Rosstat sources and
those of the MNR. The latter use only the figures for the forests managed by the Ministry. As a
result, an accurate account of the inter-annual dynamics of forest fires is often difficult to obtain.
4.4.4 Newly Forested Area – To Plant A Tree
Newly forested area is another important indicator of sustainable forestry. Traditionally,
reforestation has been a responsibility of Russia’s National Forest Service. However, for the last
10 years, due to the lack of funding and structural changes, reforested area in Russia has
diminished twofold (Bobylev and Makeyenko, 2002). According to MNR (2000), this can be
explained by two factors: the reduction in large-scale clear-cutting areas and lack of funding
available from regional administrations. In addition, there is also a lack of material incentive for
foresters to produce high-quality timber and their disinterest in a final result of reforestation
efforts. In many cases, the forest service has enough money only to retain its employees and no
money is left over for fighting forest fires, enforcing logging regulations, and planting new trees.
The fundamental change of taiga into secondary soft-wooded broadleafes is often not reflected
in the records and in some cases is camouflaged: those sites that have actually undergone
progressive cuttings and kept undergrowth are reported to be newly forested areas. This leads
to an actual delay in rehabilitation of conifer areas that can vary between 30 and 100 years
depending on a region. Compared to 1990 when the ratio of the main cutting area to the
reforested area was 1 ha to 1 ha, this ratio has somewhat improved in 2000 (1 ha to 1,7-1,8 ha).
However, given the annual damage from wildfires, pests and diseases as well as numerous
cases when seedlings do not establish well, the situation looks far from favourable. An
important argument is that in today’s Russia foresters back the spontaneous regeneration of
cutovers instead of careful and sustainable reforestation techniques with preserving the quality
and productivity of forest resources replanted. As a result, the negative process of forest
species change goes at a more rapid rate.
Figure 4.18 shows newly forested area in the Russian Arctic between 1992 and 2003.
Figure 4.18. Newly forested area in the Russian Arctic
1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
Source: author’s calculations based on MNR (2003)
As shown in Figure 4.18, total reforested area in the Russian Arctic has diminished
almost twofold over the period from 1992 to 2003, from 265 hectares in 1992 to 135 hectares in
2003, or by 49 per cent.. There have been mentioned in the literature the same reasons for that
as above: a dramatic reduction in main cuttings, an avalanchine curbing of reforestation
measures due the lack of funding, and the resulting disinterest of all relevant authorities in a
careful and efficient forest management (MNA, 2000; Lopina et al, 2003).
Table 4.26 shows newly forested area in the Russian Arctic between 1992 and 2003.
Table 4.27. Reforested area in the Russian Arctic, 1992 to 2003, ha
1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
Murmansk 8,1 11,5 13,3 13,1 7,5 7,0 7,2 7,1 7,2 4,6 3,7 3,3
Arkhangelsk 106,7 102,4 70,1 57,8 56,6 48,9 48,5 39,2 41,4 41,3 41,6 41,5
Yamal-Nenets 69,1 3,4 3,8 5,0 4,2 4,2 4,6 4,7 4,8 4,7 4,8 4,8
Krasnoyarsk 36,0 74,2 90,1 84,8 60,4 60,3 60,1 61,5 51,8 52,7 45,3 42,1
Sakha 44,6 55,7 40,2 40,2 41,3 41,4 46,3 43,7 45,6 43,6 43,7 43,4
Source: MNR (2003)
The most dramatic decrease in reforested area occurred in Arkhangelsk where the area
has diminished almost by 40%, which is largely related to a halt in forest seed farming after
1988 when a forest seed production station was closed (MNR, 2000).
The taiga change process described above concerns the Arctic forests in the first place.
In 2000, subsidiary forest species (aspen, alder, willow, etc.) occupied more than 10 million ha
of the taiga-covered areas in the Russian North. Most of these species were not found there
originally, and these subsidiary forests require conversion. However, as with the above example
of Arkhangelsk, many forest management bodies in the Russian Arctic, particularly in Murmansk
and Krasnoyarsk, lack forest seeds. Seed farming activities in some regions are not supported
properly from regional budgets. An additional major problem for the Northern forest resources is
inadequate forest legislation in that reforestation funding is not provided for by a number of
regional forest codes, particularly in Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Krasnoyarsk (MNR, 2000).
Forest problems are legion in Russia. Apart from bad statistics and non-transparent
information policy of the National Forest Service, bad forestry practices are the real obstacle to
sustainable forestry in Russia. The dramatic cut in budgetary allocations for forest management,
including expenditure on protection, conservation and reforestation, as well as on scientific
research, has serious effects on the possibilities for sustainable forestry and nature
conservation. The rate of unsustainable exploitation of boreal forests in Russia has grown
steeply. Remaining intact forests face a real threat of destruction and protective measures are
urgently needed if these areas are to remain intact. In the end, a collective effort only, supported
by society as a whole, can sustain the existence of the last surviving fraction of natural taiga in
European Russia. The alternative would be sad indeed: the loss of the last large wilderness
areas of Europe (Yaroshenko et al, 2001).
4.4.5 Protected Land Area – I Think It Is Protected…
Biodiversity conservation is vital for supporting local livelihoods and ensuring
environmental sustainability through curbing the decline in biodiversity. Protected area is a
major indicator of biodiversity conservation and ecosystem functioning that is used in many
international sustainability indicator sets, including the UNCSD set (Bobylev and Makeyenko,
2002; Kozlovskaya, 2003).
Unlike many European countries where large parts of the most valuable nature are
protected and where area protection is slowing down, Russia still has vast and undisturbed
areas to protect which means that the trend in habitat protection is expected to rise in the
nearest future. Currently, there are 204 protected areas of federal importance in Russia with
total protected area of 580,000 km2.
In fact, the percentage of the area already protected in Russia varies in the literature.
According to Bobylev and Makeyenko (2002), the area of zapovedniki and national parks has
steadily grown for the last 20 years, with the total protected area now covering 2.4 per cent of
Russia’s territory. According to Shestakov (2003), total number of Russian protected areas,
including zakazniki and natural monuments covers 11.2% of the country’s area. Dumnov et al
(2003) report that the total area of zapovedniki, national parks, nature parks, zakazniki and
natural monuments cover 8% of Russia’s territory, and regional and municipal protected area
accounts for about 3% of the country’s territory. Bobylev (2004) argues that the overall size of
protected natural territories amounts to 10.5% of the total area of the country, and that the
percentage of protected area in Russia is quite high.